Saturday, January 12, 2008

Dolphin's Smile

This is the only half-decent shot I managed to get of the Hector's dolphins in Akaroa harbour. There were at least four or five of them around the boat, dipping and skimming between the waves for about half an hour.

So why didn't I get a better picture?

Because, as soon as they appeared and looked interested, us tourists were eagerly scrambling off the boat to swim alongside the world's smallest and rarest dolphins.

Despite the rarity of their species, these little dolphins are not hard to find in waters around Banks Peninsula, and after what must must be seemingly endless boatloads of gawping visitors, are are still curious enough to take an interest and indlulge in a bit of frolicking.

The scenario is that a boatload of tourists, already wrapped up in their hired wetsuits, heads down the long, narrow Akaroa harbour looking for the dolphins. Once a pair or group of four are spotted, you have to wait to see whether the dolphins are interested in 'playing' It's against environmental ethics -- and the permit of the tour company -- to bother dolphins that are engaged in some other activity and that don't first approach the boat.

Fortunately, the first group of four that we encountered began to circle our vessel, darting back and forth in the classic signs of curiosity. Our dolphin guide explained that once off the boat we had to form a loose circle. The dolphins come close to check you out, using their echolocation to find out what you are. Group too close together, and to the dolphins you appear as a twenty-legged monster. Spread further apart, and they can recognise you as individual humans.

There was a freshening northeasterly in Akaroa harbour, and as we got closer to the heads the onshore wind was stirring up the sea. It was the first time I'd worn a wetsuit and it was slightly disconcerting. The buoyancy of the suit makes it easier to stay afloat, but throws you off balance when trying to swim. Your legs are pushed upward, making you feel like you're being tipped forward and downwards.

As we treaded water and tried to stay stable in the choppy waves, the handful of people on the boat were shouting out where the dolphins were as they zipped in and out of our group. "Right behind you!" "There! Just by your left shoulder!". Of course, with about ten people in the water, it was hard to know exactly whom the dolphin was 'right behind'. I was constantly swivelling around to catch a glimpse of a dolphin fin, slicing through the waves

I'm not confident with the mask and snorkel, and the waves were making it difficult to use them, so I had to stay above the water. Some of the others managed to get an underwater view. The closest the dolphins came to me was zipping by about three or four metres away. It was still a pretty unique and inspiring encounter with the natural world.

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